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Archive for Sunday, June 1, 2003

Umps, players agree: Strike-zone machine has no place in game

June 1, 2003

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— Who would have ever predicted that the biggest controversy of the 2003 season would be provided by an inanimate object? And, no, that's not another Bud Selig joke.

The current object of scorn -- and the business end of Curt Schilling's bat -- is the umpiring evaluation tool called QuesTec.

The perceived evils of this electronic tracking device are powerful enough to have accomplished the near-impossible -- unite those long-time bitter adversaries, umpires and pitchers, in a brotherhood of bitterness against Big Brother, represented by Major League Baseball's hierarchy.

As they say, politics and the strike zone make strange bedfellows.

QuesTec is a camera-and-computer setup that plots the strike zone and allows umpires' calls to be evaluated for accuracy. It is in place in 10 ballparks (both New York teams, Anaheim, Boston, Cleveland, Arizona, Milwaukee, Houston, Oakland and Tampa Bay), with plans to have three more ballparks (Kansas City, Cincinnati and U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago) up and running by the end of the season. The goal is to have every ballpark outfitted with QuesTec by next year.

Umpires despise QuesTec, and many players and managers are coming to that same conclusion. Umpires say that the system is too dependent on the human operator and thus varies from park to park. They claim they're forced to call pitches the way they think it will register on QuesTec, rather than their honest assessment.

Mostly, they're outraged that they are being evaluated by how closely their calls replicate QuesTec's assessment, with anything less than 90 percent agreement viewed as substandard. In March, 47 of the 68 umpires issued a statement expressing no confidence in the QuesTec system. A grievance on the matter will be heard in July.

Pitchers and managers, meanwhile, claim that the result of QuesTec is gross inconsistency in the strike zone from ballpark to ballpark -- the exact opposite of baseball's intent. They believe the same umpires call games drastically different, depending on whether it's a QuesTec park or not.

That was the source of Schilling's rage last week, when he smashed one of the two QuesTec cameras at Bank One Ballpark after a loss to San Diego. Schilling, who has a 4.39 earned-run average in Phoenix and a 1.96 ERA on the road, said that one of the umpires told him, "Do us a favor and break the other one."

"The QuesTec system in this park is a joke," Schilling told reporters. "Multiple times, umpires have said to a catcher, 'It's a pitch I want to call a strike, but the machine won't let me.'"

Major-league executives, whose stated goal is to eliminate the discrepancies in strike zones from umpire to umpire and have it called the way the rule book dictates, believe that the complaints are ill-founded. They deny that QuesTec varies significantly from ballpark to ballpark, and say that umpires will not be penalized for minuscule variations from the computerized strike zone.

"I think, unfortunately, everyone in our game has a different agenda," said Ralph Nelson, MLB's vice president of umpiring. "Pitchers want certain things, batters, umpires. What we've attempted to do, and what we believe in, is to set a standard where everyone would basically have to be on a level playing field.

"This thing has gotten blown up, and there's a lot of different ways you can couch it, like man versus machine, but the bottom line is, we can't conceive of another way to set a standard."

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